Fact: Obama Will Cap Carbon

Bill Scher

Before the end of the Barack Obama presidency, the EPA will place a cap on carbon pollution from all power plants.

This is no longer a mystery. This is happening. And there’s nothing Republicans in Congress can do about it.

Though if you’ve been paying close attention, you always knew this is happening.

The Obama administration has long made it clear to the nation’s polluters that we are going to fix the climate before the clock runs out, whether we do it the easy way or the hard way.

The easy way — for polluters at least — would have been to pass bipartisan legislation that gave goodies to corporations and helped them manage the transition to a clean energy economy.

The hard way is to go through the EPA, which has the legal authority to regulate carbon, but not to give away any goodies.

Corporations have left the congressional negotiating table ever since the BP spill broke apart the enviro-business climate coalition, as disagreements over drilling policy quickly became a chasm. And Republicans won’t budge unless their corporate donors lean hard on them. They’ve given Obama no choice but to do it the hard way.

Of course, it’s not quite that easy.

Conservative lawyers are readying their lawsuits, so the EPA has to be meticulous or risk a Supreme Court smackdown.

And President Obama wants to be careful not to spark a political backlash by slapping businesses with severe and abrupt regulations that cause unnecessary short-term economic pain.

Without buy-in from the utilities, the resulting political backlash in coal-heavy swing states could set the stage for a 2016 Republican takeover, and the very quick demise of these critical EPA regulations.

To avoid backlash, Obama needs a negotiated agreement with the power plants. Fortunately during the 2010 “cap-and-trade” debate enlightened utility industry CEOs showed their willingness to accept reasonable regulations and receive in return greatly desired long-term certainty.

Furthermore, the EPA is working a plan based on flexible state-by-state standards, designed to get that agreement. This deal is doable.

But as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait previously observed, it’s not an agreement that’s going to be forged in the streets, let along Congress. It’s going to quietly hashed out behind closed doors. Don’t expect historic speeches, and don’t assume a lack of speeches means a lack of interest. In fact, a quieter process is more likely to keep the Fox News crowd from upending the negotiating table.

Once the deal is done with the relatively compliant power plants, the warning shot will have be fired across the bow of the oil and coal industries. This will happen. You’re next. Once again: do you want to do this the easy way or the hard way?

This is a big deal, a much much bigger deal than whatever happens with the Keystone pipeline.

Power plants account for 40% of American’s greenhouse gas emissions. Placing a carbon cap on them is a major building block toward establishing an economy-wide cap, which will be a major step toward forging an international agreement.

All the pipelines in the world can’t roast us so long as we have sufficient caps on carbon pollution, at least, before it’s too late. Thankfully, we are on our way.

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